Contextualizing Radicalization: the politics of violent extremism

Responsable scientifique : Nadia Marzouki

Research on radicalization and violent extremism has significantly expanded in the past decade, in the context of the spread of extremist violence in Europe and the US and the subsequent rise of government calls for relevant expertise on the matter. While academic research on these topics has considerably grown in Europe, the United States and the Middle East, very few venues specifically aim at establishing a consistent dialogue among these projects. The originality and contribution of the International Research Network (IRN) “Contextualizing Radicalization: the politics of violent extremism” is to fill the gap not only in comparative research on radicalization processes, but also in actual experiences of transnational academic collaboration.

The network, which was set up for the period 2019-2022, consists of 10 partner institutions: in addition to CERI, it involves the Institut de Recherches sur le Maghreb Contemporain and the Institut Français du Proche Orient in France, the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University (USA), the Institute of Islamic Studies of the University of Toronto (Canada), the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Geneva, Switzerland), the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute (Italy), the Saint-Joseph University of Beirut (Lebanon) and the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies of the University of Copenhagen (Denmark).

Scientific purpose and missions

The network draws upon the robust scholarship that already exists on the issue of radicalization, and keep in mind the important questions/doubts raised by the recent reports listed above. It has adopted an interdisciplinary approach, combining qualitative research based on observation and interviews with quantitative methods. The specificity of its contribution lies in its ambition to constitute an international academic platform where national research and experiments on radicalization can be compared, confronted and critiqued.

More specifically, the objective of this IRN is threefold.

- Comparison. The IRN will offer a venue for scholars and experts from Europe, the United States and the MENA to present and confront various research methods and compare local and national policy approaches to extremist violence.

Critique. While concepts such as radicalization and violent extremism are highly contested, the IRN will seek to elaborate a constructively critical perspective on such concepts and propose some alternatives to think about the phenomenon of extremist violence and to establish best practice and policy.

- Methods. Numerous studies on violent extremism emphasize the need to better grasp the individual dimension of trajectories and motives of extremists, and warn against the appeal of all-encompassing trends and patterns, the explanatory power of which is very weak. However, at the same time, scholars have questioned the tendency to pathologize extremists, and to explain their action through the sole lens of psychological breakdown. They argue instead that their behavior does represent a form of rational activism. Scott Atran proposes to use the term “devoted actors” to capture an action that is rationally oriented towards a specific goal but may seem irrational due to its extreme violence. An objective of the IRN is to think about new ways to articulate these two methodological constrains how to think about violent extremism in a systematic way while taking seriously the singularity of individual contexts and trajectories? How to make sense of the rationality and agentivity of extremist actors and go beyond the pathologization perspective, without ruling out the helpful input of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy?

Clusters/lines of enquiry

The IRN will focus on the following five lines of enquiry that will serve as based for five clusters of researchers. 

- Hate speech and radicalization discourses. This cluster will examine the specificity of the culture of violence promoted by extremist groups from ISIS to far right supremacist groups in the U.S. and Europe. Rather than dismissing their media production as an expression of barbarity or psychological disorder, it is important to understand the extent to which it represents an effective form of culture and esthetic. The network will offer an adequate venue to analyze the formation and reach of this esthetic of radicalization in a transnational, comparative and cross-ideological perspective. We will also address the question of the efficiency of strategies that aim at elaborating counter-narratives and counter-messaging to hate and radical speech.

The religious blind spot. Debates about the exact role of Islamic theology in the radicalization of jihadists are ongoing. Scholars and commentators arguing that there is something specifically Islamic in the violence perpetrated by ISIS oppose those who argue that religion plays in fact a minor role, underlining that most of ISIS recruit is composed of recent converts or reverts. In Jihad and Death, Olivier Roy has developed the hypothesis of the Islamization of radicalism, suggesting that jihadist violence is indeed connected to violence but in a way that expresses nihilism rather than the search for theological utopia. Drawing upon these findings, this cluster will examine the ways in which violent action is related to religious doctrine or ethos, in order to detect difference and similarities across contexts where Islam is a majority or minority religion. Understanding the complex ways in which violent extremism instrumentalizes religion has key consequences for the elaboration of better policy. It helps deciding whether religion should be seen solely as a problem, as is still often assumed in current CVE programs, or if it is, rather, part of the solution.

- The geography of jihadism. Despite their claim to rebuild a caliphate, the ability of jihadist fighters to construct a viable Islamic state has raised a lot of skepticism. As a result, the territorial and material dimension of jihadism has often been superseded by an enquiry into their ideology and theology. The link between violent jihadism, territory and economic interests, however, should not be underestimated. Reports such as the International Crisis Group reports on Tunisian jihadists underline the tight relation between jihadism and contraband in the border areas between Libya and Tunisia. Scholars have also shown how jihadism has played out in the revival of tribal politics. The disparate patterns of access to land and the discrepancy between rural or urban areas or coasts and hinterland also contribute to explaining the modalities of success of extremist groups in some regions rather than others. This cluster will address the relationship between territoriality and jihadism, in an effort to bring back a more materialist perspective to a phenomenon that tends to be seen all too often through the abstract lens of cognitive malfunction or ideological pathology.

- Free speech and Muslims’ rights. Programs, policy and legislation aimed at countering violent extremism and preventing terror have had a negative impact on the freedoms of the broader Muslim communities in both the United States and Europe. The most infamous cases of infringement to individual freedoms have revolved around the cases of the illegal NYPD surveillance[1] of mosques attendants and Muslim students. Muslims have also been coerced into acting as informants against their will, and serious debates have occurred in U.S. courts about the impact of anti-terror legislation on free speech. In Europe and in the Middle East, similar questions have appeared in the wake of stricter anti-terrorism legislation.  For example in France, scholars and academics working on violent extremism have raised concerns about their freedom to pursue their research without becoming suspect of complicity with their informants.  This cluster of the IRN will examine debates around anti-terror legislation and their impact on individual liberties from a comparative perspective to suggest lessons that may be learned from each national experience.

Gender, family norms and filiation. Analysts have underlined two singular aspects in the patterns of ISIS mobilization and recruitment, as opposed to earlier violent extremist movements from Muslim societies: the significant number of young women joining the ranks of foreign fighters; and the recurrence of siblings’ mobilization. The singularity of the demographics of European and American individuals joining the ranks of ISIS raises new questions about their perception of gender, family, and family lineage. As noted by Olivier Roy, siblings joining ISIS often have a reversed relationship to the generation of their parents, in a sense that they pretend to be the symbolic saviors of their parents. The understanding of parental lineage and generational transmission underlining the worldview of violent jihadists is therefore very different from the inscription in “believers’ lineages” (lignées croyantes) that define more mainstream politicized form of Islamist groups. This cluster seeks to understand this new phenomenon and analyze its consequence for the lives of young children brought up in ISIS dominated territory and brought back to Europe.

In terms of deliverables and actions, the network will hold five yearly meetings leading to five yearly reports, produce working papers for each cluster and one final edited volume, and set up an Internet Website dedicated to spreading information and research produced in the IRN and consolidating transnational academic collaboration.

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